The Significance of the Military Figure in Egyptian Popular Culture

Like so many millions of fellow Egyptians, i was brought up to believe strongly in our national army as the protector of the nation from foreign invasions and forceful aggression. This solid belief was not only formed through studying history books at school or listening to endless debates and discussions within family circles about the heroism and patriotism of the Egyptian army, or by watching countless political speeches which hail the army and its achievements and victories, but more importantly through many films we have watched, songs we have fondly memorised, radio programmes and TV drama series we have listened to and seen over and again while growing up, and countless images on TV, in documentaries, and in cinema, which reflect the courage and discipline of our national army. until this day, if you ask young boys in Egypt what they would like to become when they grow up, most of them are likely to give you one of two answers: an army officer or a police officer. The respect for the Egyptian army’s patriotism in defending the nation-state against its ‘enemies’, and the sacrifices which the soldiers and officers have made for the nation and paid for with their lives and blood, and the lives of their sons, permeate the memory and experience of millions of Egyptian families. Egyptian mothers and fathers feel proud of their sons who sacrificed their lives for the nation. They are the ‘divine martyrs’ who will always live in the collective memory and their stories will continue to be told to future generations. This is why the image of the ‘martyr’ (shaheed) is a profoundly powerful one in Egyptian popular cultural outputs, to the extent that the armed forces have marked 9 March as ‘Martyr’s Day’, which is celebrated every year. It was the day when Abdel Mon‘eim Riyad, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, was martyred in 1969 during the War of Attrition between Egypt and Israel. Riyad’s memory and sacrifice for the nation are highly revered by the army and the people alike.

Another revered image is that of the ‘freedom fighter’ (fida’i). Army men and freedom fighters, especially the martyrs amongst them, occupy a special status in a nation which has seen many threats to its national sovereignty and social unity. The army is perceived as the foundation of a unified, strong nation. It comes as no surprise then that the figure of the military man, with his tidy clean uniform, his distinct military hat and his posture, has been represented in multi-layered forms in the field of popular culture.

Yet the militarisation of a society’s culture in such a manner, which has been going on for decades, also posits questions about the national identity of its people: how does this militarised culture impact on the social relations and the language used as manifested in artistic works? What can popular culture tell us about the ‘masculine’, ‘aggressive’ or ‘patriarchal’ elements resulting from the nation’s militarised identity? Indeed, one of the main motivations for writing this book is the fact that the army is regarded so highly and is held in such a revered status that its impact on culture goes unchallenged by critics and academics. Situating the military figure in the context of popular cultural elements which have glorified his image is one of the aims of this volume, in order to interrogate, engage and challenge widely spread notions about nationhood and revolution.

But to what extent and in what ways are we able to establish the strong bond between army, people and nation in the field of Egyptian popular culture? Here, I would like to engage some key ideas presented by Menna Khalil in her chapter entitled ‘The People and the Army Are One Hand: Myths and their Translations’ (2012). In it, she elaborates on how the Egyptian army has come to occupy ‘almost godlike qualities’ through its nationalist history and past revolutions (p. 250). She makes this observation:

Whether an international strategy or an internalized perception, the collective memorialization of the army as protector against foreign imperialism and liberator of the nation, as a force having always stood by and guided the will of the people, gave it almost godlike qualities. [...] In prior revolutions and moments of popular resistance (1882, 1919, 1952), the army (an institution as well as a body of conscripts) is historically defined as liberator or savior of Egypt from corrupt rule, hegemonic dominance, and foreign invasion. Of course, that is not to say that the army was involved as a leading actor in all these events, nor did all these events really have the removal of foreign dominance as their central theme. However, it is the army’s process of conscription (in the early 1800s) and its centrality as a national defense force that give it such resonance of unity and belonging with ‘the people’. (pp. 250, 254—emphasis in original)

Khalil’s argument, thus, situates the Egyptian army within a national historiographical framework, but also insists on questioning the extent to which the concept of ‘national unity’ between the people and the army is indeed foregrounded in the society. Furthermore, she emphasises the popular characterisations of the army and how this ‘discourse’ is vital ‘to understand the complex and ambivalent relationship between the people and the army’ (p. 253). I agree with Khalil on the use of the term ‘ambivalent’ to describe the historic relation between the people and the army in Egypt. Such a relationship has passed through many ups and downs, and perhaps it is the sphere of popular culture which has captured this sense of ambivalence, uncertainty and heterogeneity most clearly, as will be illustrated in this book.

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